11/14/2022 - 11/17/2022
Our time in Ecuador was winding down. It had already been an action-packed vacation. It started with a day in Antisana. After that, we spent a week touring the southeastern islands of the Galapagos. It was amazing. We were not done, though. We had four days left to soak in some of what mainland Ecuador had to offer. This would consist of a birding trip to the Mindo Valley area. I already covered a little bit of our time here in a post about Angel Paz. This post will cover the rest of our time in the area.
Five of the original twenty were joining us on this trip. John and Robin, Norty and Summers, Dottie, and Carmen and myself would be doing a lot of birding over the next few days. Overall, it was a very good birding trip. After everything we had already done, I was not quite ready for a birding trip. 12 hour days of birding were a bit rough. A typical day started with a quick coffee at the lodge before sunrise. Breakfast was on the run a little later in the morning. "Lunch" was around 2:30 in the afternoon. Dinner was at 7:00. Daylight runs from 6:00 AM to 6:00 PM near the equator. There is not a lot of variation. For most of that time, we were birding. Anymore, I appreciate more of a mix of birding and some photography. This was a lot of cloud forest birding. For those of you who make it out for spring migration in the eastern parts of the US and have spent time gazing up into the treetops for warblers, this is what cloud forest birding is like. In fact, we saw some of those same warbler species in Ecuador. It can be tough, and the looks are not always that rewarding. I left many species off my list, because I did not get a good enough look at them.
There were a few mishaps and issues on this trip. It was not the smoothest tour I have been on. The van broke down. Not much to be done about that. It was unfortunate, but there is no one to really blame there. We did the best we could and moved on. There also was not much communication about what to expect from day-to-day, though. We knew where we were going, but we did not know anything about the area - how much walking, what the terrain was like, etc.... Combine that with long days of hard birding, and it was a bit much. The guide, for her part, did a good job guiding. She took us to locations and showed us the birds of the area. And she did that from dawn to dusk. We needed someone to help strike a balance with the guide; someone to speak for the group as its spirits ebbed and waned. We just did not have that person, and no one in the group stepped into the role. So, we birded, and birded, and birded. Frankly, the guide's enthusiasm and endurance were admirable. Not that it was awful. I am just trying to paint a realistic picture of what things were like. They were good. They were tough. We saw a lot, but we put a lot into it.
The day started before sunrise at the hotel. We were picked up by our guide and then taken to another hotel to pick up the remaining guests. Even this part of the plan was a bit of a mystery until the day before. The tour company did not communicate when we would be picked up. We finally got an email the day before. It worked out, but it could have been smoother. Everyone was loaded into the van and we took off across Quito. We probably could have done with a little earlier start. Traffic was thick. We finally pulled off on a side street and visited a small market for breakfast snacks.
We got back in the van and started heading up into Yanacocha. The place is known for its hummingbird feeders. Sword-billed Hummingbird is one of the draws here, but we were not there in the right time of season. The tour company repeatedly forgot to mention that we were not there in the right time of season for a lot of things their brochure highlighted. Live and learn. November is not the best time to visit. Yanacocha is located along the Nono-Mindo road, and it is known for its birding. We ended up playing leapfrog with another tour van heading through the area. This, somehow, brought us limited opportunities to stop. Apparently, we could not stop in the same location; even though the guides were from the same company. We hit one great stop with a good number of birds working in a small ravine. Spectacled Redstart, Great Thrush, Orange-bellied Euphonia, Yellow-breasted Brushfinch, Supercilliated Hemispingus, White-crested Elaenia, a couple tyrannulets, and Black-crested Warbler. Things moved quick. In spite of several birds being close, I did not get photos of anything other than the Black-crested Warbler. Still, it is a good looking bird.
We made it to Yanacocha and quickly hit up the various feeders. The first hummingbird feeder was quite active, but the only one that would pose for shots was the Buff-winged Starfrontlet. Great Sapphirewing and Sapphire-vented Puffleg were also visiting the feeder. A little further up, an open tray feeder was being marauded by Masked Flowerpiercer.
Finally, we rounded a bend on the walkway and hit the main building. Here, we would be having lunch. Before that, we hit up the other feeders. The star here was the Scarlet-bellied Mountain-Tanager. A large stunning bird. Hummingbird feeders were mainly occupied by Shining Sunbeam. The bananas were being monopolized by an Andean Guan. Periodically, a shy Glossy Flowerpiercer would slip in and directly jet for the feeder. It was very shy. So were several other birds. The brushfinch would quickly visit. A Rufous Wren stopped by. Before leaving for the day, we finally caught a pair of Black-chested Mountain-Tanager visiting.
It is here that we had some of our most frustrating issues. The group we had been leapfrogging earlier was here. It appears that someone had mixed up arrival times? I am not sure what the story is. What I can say is that the guide ended up taking us on a walk through the thick polylepsis trees to allow the other group time to move on. In the trees, no one at the back could see anything going on. They all missed out on the only Tawny Antpitta we had for the trip. We finally left there and headed down a mountain road. Somehow, we were directly behind the other group. We were birding in their wake, and we were seeing nothing. Instead of leading us back for lunch and returning, we just forged on for a while. It is pretty frustrating to hear the other group calling out the birds they are seeing but being held back from moving up or past them. We eventually turned around to get lunch. We had a few birds on the way back. About 15 minutes after we got in for lunch, the other group walked in.... I hurried through lunch and headed out to shoot.
We got back in the van and started birding our way out along the Nono-Mindo road. Unfortunately, the fog moved in for a while. We finally got out of the fog and were able to start birding in earnest. At a stream crossing, we ran across a White-capped Dipper. I could not have been more excited. I asked about getting out, and we did; walking down the road for a ways. The bird disappeared, but we found another one a little further down the road. Lighting was almost nonexistent, but I was happy to see the bird and get an opportunity to photograph it.
By this time, the other van had caught us again, and we were back to the leapfrog game. At one location, the guide explained the other group (stopped along the road) were looking at a Turquoise Jay. We were told the jay was common and we would see them later. We did not - lifer missed. Not much further down the road, we stopped again. For the final time, really. The van would not start. The driver quickly found the issue. The fuel pump had cracked and was spraying diesel every time he tried to start the van. The driver worked on the van as best as he could. The guide kept us busy birding. Light was failing with the heavy overcast skies. We did the best we could. The group that had been our nemesis most of the day came by. They offered to get word of our issues to the van company (no cell signal in the area). The driver even offered to come back and pick us up after dropping the other group. It would just be a few hours. We birded.
All's well that ends well. We eventually got a ride to the lodge and a bit of a late dinner. For his part, the poor driver stayed there and fixed the van in the dark after getting a replacement part delivered. I was happy to see him pull in the lot as I walked out of the lodge from dinner. Carmen even saw him get dinner, which was even better. We made sure to tip him extra at the end of the trip.
This was a very long day of birding. Towards the end, it provided a bit of comedy, which we all appreciated. We would be birding the Bellavista Reserve properties, this day. Before that, we started with some birding at the lodge. We were staying at Satchatamia Lodge, and it was a really nice place with some nice grounds. I wish the agenda had called for some more time there. This morning would be the only real birding we would do there. The lodge runs an insect light at night; basically a bare bulb up in front of some white canvas. This pulls in hundreds of moths and insects overnight. In the morning, it is a bird buffet. The lodge has a small blind situated there, and that is where we started our morning. We had a lot of woodcreepers and foliage-gleaners. Surprisingly, we had only one species of flycatcher, but it is hard to complain about the cute little Ornate Flycatcher. Rufous Motmot, Masked Trogon, Ecuadorian Thrush, a Gray-breasted and a Mountain Wren, and Slate-throated Redstart round out the birds seen. I could have started a couple of mornings at this place.
We left the blind as birding slowed and walked up to the lodge. The lodge has a pair of feeding stations there. The first is an impressive array of hummingbird feeders. The second is a set of banana feeders.
Unfortunately, banana feeders were empty. A Flame-faced Tanager came in and quickly left after seeing they were empty. We hit up the hummingbird feeders and had quite an impressive number of birds: Brown Inca, Booted Racket-Tail, Velvet-purple Coronet, Purple-throated Woodstar, Andean Emerald, Rufous-tailed Hummingbird, and the beautiful Violet-tailed Sylph. Activity was frantic, and I could not find a shot of many. Of course, I focused on the more uncommon birds. Such is human nature.
Now, this is not going to surprise anyone, but I had already been out birding before the appointed meeting time. I was up and had walked from our cabin down to the lodge. There, a security light had acted as a bug light and pulled a number of insects into the trees and plants around it. The area was busy with birds. While birding there, I caught some motion out of the corner of my eye. I turned in time to see a large, black bird fly out of a tree and away from me. I, as often, had no idea what I had seen. Later, while standing at the hummingbirds feeders with the group, I got my answer. A large black bird flew over and headed down to some fruiting palm trees. It was a female Long-wattled Umbrellabird. A great find.
We had breakfast and then hurried out the door. We would be spending the rest of the morning and a good portion of the afternoon birding the Bellavista Reserve property. As I mentioned cloud forest birding is tough. Pictures were even tougher. We would drive the rough, rocky roads for a bit then get out and walk for a bit. It was not bad. Views were tough. Our guide got a little over-focused on trying to get us a view of a fruiteater. I would have loved to see one, but none of the birds were interested in coming into view. I got one (uncountable) brief glimpse of a bird, and it jetted for cover. We spent a very long time, several diffrent times, trying to get this bird. No joy. In between, we had Golden-headed Quetzal, Gorgeted Sunangel, Streaked Tuftedcheek, Powerful and Crimson-mantled Woodpecker, Black-eared Hemispingus, and an array of tanagers. Distant, high, or dimly lit looks (sometimes all three) were the mainstay. As with every day, the fog moved in, and you just did your best to bird around it.
We returned to the lodge for a late lunch. I hurried my way though to allow more time shooting. The bananas had been replenished, and I was hoping to capture a Flame-faced Tanager or one of the Blue-winged Mountain-Tanagers I had seen that morning. I went 50-50. Not bad. Red-headed Barbet, Thick-billed Euphonia, Palm Tanager, Blue-gray Tanager, Orange-bellied, Euphonia, Golden Tanager, and Ecuadorian Thrush all made appearances. White-tipped Dove and Scrub Blackbird patrolled the grounds with some agouti. I hit up a couple more hummingbirds, too.
After lunch, we headed into Mindo for what was left of the daylight. Rain was sporadically falling. We moved through town and spotted a Fasciated Tiger-Heron and a Sunbittern at different bridges. From there, birding got tougher. It was a lot of Flame-rumped Tanagers, which were nicknamed "Lemons" (based on their old name). Bad lighting and rain kept the camera packed away. The highlight was a White-throated Crake. Not that we ever saw it. Quite the contrary, really.
It all started with us stopping near a small wetland and the guide randomly playing for the crake. No response, but she said it was worth a try. A little further down the road, we stopped at a location, and a crake started singing loudly. The guide was convinced that she had accidentally started playing for it again. The problem is that her speaker was off and her phone was not actively playing. The crake, amazingly, was calling directly outside her window. We piled out and started looking down towards a long row of tall grass on the other side of a barbed wire fence. The bird started calling again, and it became apparent that it was closer than we suspected. Very close. Like right in a row of tall weeds next to the road close. The weeds were not overly deep, but they were thick. Poking, prodding, and various investigations of the weeds proved fruitless. The bird even walked past us without us seeing it and then returned with the same result; calling from different locations as it did so. We eventually gave up. We did not want to crash through the weeds to flush it, in case the bird was nesting. We just had to let it go. Crazy, because I know we were within a few feet of it and could just not find it.
We headed back to the lodge and called it a night. We probably should have sworn each other to secrecy about the crake.
Another long day. Unfortunately, it is also a day with few photos. We started even earlier this morning to try and arrive at our destination shortly after sunrise.
We were starting this day with a trip down to Rio Silanche to visit the canopy tower. The reserve features a 50 foot tall tower that looks out into the surrounding trees. It is a spectacular way to get a look at some of the birds that prefer the tree canopy. Silanche is at a lot lower elevation than Mindo (about 1,300 ft. vs 9,000 ft.). The birds would be much different. Warm temperatures and high humidity greeted us on arrival. We would be looking for a number of Choco specialties, today. I am not sure we got that many, but it was a good time. Another birder and a guide were already on the tower when we arrived, and we started with a walk down the trail, instead. It was dark. I was already having flashbacks to the previous day and the issues we had with the second group. After a short time on the trail, we heard some Purple-throated Fruitcrow. The calls started coming from back towards the tower. This appeared to be the reason the guide was looking for, and she lead us up the tower to join the others. It was a little crowded, but it was not bad. The fruitcrow call was coming from the other guide's speaker. They had heard them too and were trying to call them in. One took the bait and stopped by briefly. The morning was quite active. It was hard to keep up at times. Some things were photographed. Others were missed. Lighting against the sky was tough. It was a bright, overcast sky. It was good for shooting; as long as you were not shooting into it. For me, the morning held a couple of surprises. First, the field guide does not do a good job of conveying how beautiful the Rufous-winged Tanager really is; nor how different it is from Bay-headed Tanager. I also was surprised at how the crest of feathers on a Tawny-crested Tanager nearly glow. While I did not get a good photo of the Choco Toucan, I was surprised at how different it looked from a Yellow-throated. I expected them to be harder to differentiate. Aside from those, we had a couple species of trogon, Black-faced and Scarlet-chested Dacnis, tanagers, Orange-fronted Barbet, Scarlet-rumped Cacique, Choco Tyrannulet, Slate-coloured Grosbeak, Green Honeycreeper, and others that I am sure I am forgetting. All in all, it was a good morning.
We had breakfast (ham and cheese sandwiches) on top of the tower. I enjoyed the casual birding. Things eventually slowed down, and we headed back down the tower. We walked a small loop on the trail, but we had very little. I was hoping for a number of ant-type birds. You know: antwrens, antvireos, antbirds, antpittas, antshrikes, ..., antthrushes. Just name a species and add ant in front of it. I was hoping for those. Not much was moving. We had some Dot-winged Antwren on the way down the tower. Nothing much after that. We got back to the feeder area, but there were no fresh bananas out. The hummingbird feeders were active. White-whiskered Hermit and Purple-chested Hummingbird were new species for the trip. We spent a lot of time tracking down a Scaly-crested Pygmy-Tyrant. The looks were good, but the pics were terrible. Streaked Flycatcher and a Wedge-billed Woodcreeper were also in the area. A beautiful morpho butterfly flew through, too.
The other birder and his guide headed down another trail, and we headed to the van. We were told that the normal route back was closed. Our driver was not familiar with the other route to get back. For some reason, instead of just doubling back, they pressed on with their own route. In the end, it worked out. It just took a long time. We stopped and birded various spots along the road. We found a White-bearded Manakin along the way. The guide heard it snapping its wings as we were driving a backroad. I was starting to have flashbacks to the crake. We could not find it. Finally, I turned around and looked up. There, through a small window in the bush, was a small manakin staring back at me. Once he realized he had been spotted, he zoomed off for cover. Not many of us were lucky to see him.
We finally wound our way to Milpe; just in time for our standard 2:30 or so lunch. Lunch was another box-type affair. Fried chicken pieces and pasta with some vegetables. We ate these at the feeder area. The hummingbird feeders were quite active. The banana feeders were pretty dead. Although there was one visitor right away. I had just stepped into the bathroom when I heard a general commotion. I assumed something good had shown up. It had. I stepped out just in time to see a Tayra disappear. A few seconds later, it came back and nervously peered at us. It snatched a banana and left.
The hummingbird feeders offered a few new sightings. Lighting was poor, again. Shaded areas in cloud forests on overcast days do not offer much daylight. I spent lunch shooting what I could. The highlight was the Green Thorntail.
After lunch, we were asked how long of a hike we wanted to take. We were given options of a quick half hour walk or a longer hour and a half type walk. We voted for the half hour, maybe a little longer, type walk. We got something like a two hour ordeal. Again, the guide got fixated. We were going to look for Club-winged Manakin, and we were going to go until we found it. Or, in our case, until we had to give up. The walk started out decent enough. Lighting was done by this point; so, I am just carrying the camera for the extra exercise, I guess. Birds were skittish, and I was sad to miss a Spotted Nightingale-Thrush. Crested Guan were moving about in the treetops. Yellow-throated Toucan were harassing them. A tapping woodpecker evaded us. We finally got to the manakin location. It had taken us over a half hour to get that far. Efforts were made. They were made again. Tape was employed. The bird was freely moving around us without anyone laying eyes on it. We gave up and moved back uphill. There, another bird was heard and it was deja-vu, all over again. No joy. Joy had left the building. We were sapped. The guide turned and looked at me and mumbled that we all looked beat. Given that another in the party was standing with their hands on their knees, I would say that was pretty accurate. She started to head us back. Even then, she kept trying to track down various birds; including ones we had already seen. It was rough.
We got back for dinner at the lodge and a bit of recovery. Then we did some fruitless night birding. We could hear a Rufescent Screech-Owl. We could not get it to come in. We tried from one side of the grounds. We tried from the other. We walked back to the other side. Finally, we tried from the middle. No luck. We said goodnight and walked away. As we did, we heard the guide play again. Turns out that was on accident. It also turns out that the owl came and landed on a post right next to her when that happened. Instead of calling out (we were not that far away when we heard it play), she took video of it and showed it off in the morning....
Our final day. The morning started excellently at Angel Paz's family farm. I have already written a post about Angel and his amazing story. After leaving Angel's place, we returned to the lodge. Finally, we were going to do a little more birding around Satchatamia. The plan was to have lunch, finish packing up rooms, and then take a walk around the grounds. The lodge was gracious enough to allow us to keep the rooms until 3:00 PM. This allowed us to shower and change into clean clothes before heading to the airport. Most of us had midnight flights. Norty and Summers were smart enough to have one last night at a hotel in Quito before heading back.
Again, no one will be surprised to hear that I hurried through lunch, showered, and re-packed as quickly as possible so I could go shoot a little bit longer. I headed to the banana feeders and anxiously hoped for a Flame-faced Tanager to show.
In the end, it did not work out. The fog rolled in and out. It started to rain a bit. The guide decided to cancel the walk in favor of heading to one last set of hummingbird feeders. The feeders we stopped at were somehow tied to the Alambi Reserve, but I am pretty sure we were not at the reserve. I do not recall 100%. What I do recall is the insane amount of hummingbird feeders. There were some banana feeders, too, and a few tanagers were coming in. We had our only White-lined Tanager of the trip here. We had our best look at Black-capped Tanager, too. I was kicking myself a bit. I had noticed a funny looking dove when we walked back to look for an oropendula one of the hosts had seen. No luck. But a dove was nervously walking nearby. I thought it looked odd but wrote it off as a White-tipped Dove. Later, as we were sitting, the dove walked out under the feeders, and the guide excitedly called out a Pallid Dove. I should have said something earlier. It also cost me a photo of this lifer; as it quickly disappeared after getting identified. There were a few new hummingbirds here and a lot of the ones we had already seen. Brown Violetear, Western Emerald, Violet-bellied Hummingbird, and Tawny-bellied Hermit were all new. I missed the hermit but was able to see the rest.
We covered the trip list for the day and relaxed a bit. After a quick look through the gift shop, I walked back out to the feeders. There, sitting on a perch, was the bird I had been looking for a shot of since our first day in Mindo. The infamous "puffboot motissimo". Do not bother to look that up. Carmen had fallen in love with the Booted Racket-Tail and renamed it as a puffy-booted little motmot. The motmot part comes from the tail of the bird looking like a motmot tail. It is not often that she shows an interest in a bird, and I was hoping for a shot of one to give her. This was my moment. I am glad to say it was not squandered. Sure, lighting could be better, but it is sharp. More than anything, I am just happy to have a shot of a Booted Racket-Tail to share with her; regardless of what she wants to call it.
It was a great way to end the day. We headed to the van and started the trip back. The drive back was uneventful. The airport was uneventful; even if we were there for quite a while. The flight was not very restful, but that is not uncommon. Customs was even uneventful. There was only minor cursing of TSA for not have a pre-check lane open when we arrived. The flight home and the drive home were uneventful. It is hard to ask for more than that.
We were lucky to have a good group of people for all our time in Ecuador. We had said goodbye to Norty and Summers in Quito. John and Robin we got to say a final goodbye to as we parted ways on the otherside of Customs. Dotty had slipped away before we could catch up to her. The goodbye in Quito would have to do.
If you made it through all these posts, you have my humble appreciation. It was a good trip, and I am already trying to figure out how to make it back to Ecuador. We have a bit of vacation planning to do for next year. It is hard to tell where we will end up. Until then, I am sure I will be doing some shooting around the state. As always...
Thanks for reading,